Cherokee Charter: The Perfect Place to Sign House Bill 797

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened.  Last spring it seemed possible – maybe even probable — that Cherokee Charter would never open because of a state Supreme Court decision.  What a difference a year makes.  Governor Nathan Deal will visit the school Thursday morning when he signs legislation to create the structure for a new state charter schools commission.

“We’re very excited that not only is the Governor pro-charter but he is coming to our school to sign House Bill 797,” said Cherokee Charter Principal Vanessa Suarez.  “At the end of the day, all politics aside, we are here for the kids.  We are here for our students that want a choice.”

This signing ceremony could have been done anywhere, including at the State Capitol. Doing it at a charter school that thrived despite constant disapproval by the local school board will send a succinct message:  School choice is a good idea that is consistent with quality local public education.  Perhaps the Cherokee County school board should get on-board.

Georgia will create a new charter schools commission next year if voters statewide approve a constitutional amendment that is on the November ballot.  The new commission would consider but is not required to approve charter school applications only after they are rejected locally.

You can find nearly all the arguments for-and-against state authorization of charter schools in Cherokee County.   A well-regarded school district that spends more than one-half billion dollars per year nonetheless wails publicly about tight budgets.   In doing so, it tries to portray a start-up charter school with a tiny budget as a threat to public school funding.  The start-up serves about 2% of the county’s public school students and it is a long way from being a threat to status quo.

Vanessa Suarez, Principal, Cherokee Charter Academy

The Cherokee County school board has never approved a local charter school application.  It rejected Cherokee Charter Academy three times, including twice last year and again for the 2012 – 2013 school year.  The Academy in Canton opened with about 825 students last August after it received a state charter and state funding authorized by Governor Deal.

Funding is a relative term.   State records indicate state, local and SPLOST funding amounts to $8,749 per pupil in the traditional Cherokee County public schools.  This year Cherokee Charter Academy received $5,000 per pupil in average total funds from all sources.  It does not receive local tax dollars or SPLOST capital expenditure funds.

A Cherokee County school board majority and Supt. Frank R. Petruzielo have repeatedly portrayed this issue as local, and say their concern is about the Cherokee schools.

Then last week the Cherokee board passed a resolution by a 4-2 vote that “requests that voters of the State of Georgia not support the Constitutional Amendment relative to charter schools.”  Now it is about more than Cherokee County; now it is about stopping state charters everywhere.

Carrying the title “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education,” the slightly longer than one page document is long on rhetoric about “an already underfunded public education system, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, shortened school calendars, insufficient textbooks and other curricular supplies and employee furloughs, with no end in sight” but it fails to recognize that all charter schools are public schools.  Let’s try that once more for those who might be newcomers here:  all charter schools are public schools.

The resolution is wrong and misleading when it tries to create the perception the state could “take and redirect local school tax dollars for the aforementioned purposes,” those purposes being to support state charter schools.

The constitutional amendment legislation stipulates only state dollars would be used to support state charter schools.  No local tax dollars would be redirected to state charter schools.  State funding to local school systems would not be reduced because any student leaves a traditional public school to enroll in a charter school.  Therefore, the resolution is misleading and false.

So to recap: Cherokee Charter opened with 825 students last fall and it received about $5,000 per pupil in total funding from all sources.  All local tax dollars and all SPLOST dollars for those students stayed with the Cherokee County public schools system.  Somehow those two ideas did not make their way into the “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education.”

Cherokee County is a destination location. It is a nice place to live.  It has jobs.  It has good real estate values.  It has parks.  It has a 74% high school graduation rate, less than 85% claimed by the school district but still better than the 67% statewide average.  So, it has good schools.  This year the district will spend $527 million to educate 38,766 students.  The district has almost as much staff – 2,169 – as it does teachers – 2,343.

This August the traditional school district will expand its STEM and fine arts programs, which Cherokee County board member Michael Geist sees as a response to Cherokee Charter Academy.  “I don’t know if I care too much why they did this.  I’m just glad they did,” said Geist, who was elected to the traditional county board but has two children enrolled at Cherokee Charter Academy.

Geist voted against the constitutional “Quality Public Education” resolution. “It seems like every idea worth investing in gets shot down by the education lobby and the education establishment,” Geist said.  “We don’t even get a chance to really find out if charter schools can work well.”

What a difference a year makes.  Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened.  This fall the Academy will add eighth grade and enroll 1,000 students.  The Academy was also selected to participate in a middle schools program offered by Cambridge University in England.  This is a long way from not knowing whether your doors would open.

“We have learned the difference between a shock and an aftershock,” said board member Lyn Michaels-Carden.  “A year ago the things that happened to us shocked and stunned us and sometimes we were distraught.  Now because of everything we’ve been through it’s a lot easier to have perspective.  You get to the point where you recognize what’s really important.”

Cherokee Charter seems like a perfect place to sign charter schools commission legislation.

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